US sends symbolic snub to repressive ally

By Bronwen Maddox writing in the Times Online

IT’S called sending a message. It may not do much, but at least it’s been sent. Yesterday the US Senate voted to block a payment of $23 million (’13 million) to Uzbekistan, for the use of an airbase that the US has now been told to leave.

On Monday the European Union slapped sanctions on the country for refusing to allow an international investigation into the Government’s crackdown on a protest in May, said to have killed hundreds of unarmed people. Next week Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, will visit most of Uzbekistan’s neighbours ‘ but not Uzbekistan itself ‘ to drive home US disapproval.

At last, you might say. Five months after President Karimov’s bloody repression of the uprising in the northeastern city of Andijon, the West has decided to do something.

Its initial hesitation was not surprising although not inspiring. Uzbekistan is perhaps the nastiest regime to which the US turned for help after September 11, 2001. Karimov lent a big airbase to the US for use in the Afghan war, and kept access open after the war ended.

But the brutality of Karimov’s rule exposed the US from the start to charges of hypocrisy in its foreign policy: that it was fighting to establish democracy and freedom in Afghanistan and Iraq, while tolerating an ugly despotism in Uzbekistan.

For four years the US has publicly accepted Karimov’s claim that he was doing no more than fighting Islamic fundamentalism (the same justification President Putin of Russia gives for the suppression of Chechnya).

It pointed to Uzbekistan’s membership of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and its co-operation agreements with Nato and the EU.

But once the heat of the Afghan war subsided, senior US officials were prepared to say privately that putting up with Karimov was unpleasant.

On the British side, the discomfort came to a head earlier with the charges by Craig Murray, the former British Ambassador to Tashkent. He was recalled last year after he accused Britain and the US of condoning torture in Uzbek prisons.

It was the May uprising which forced the US and the EU to harden their positions. Karimov claimed that 187 people were killed, and that most were Islamic terrorists. Witnesses said that about 700 people were killed, mostly unarmed civilians. Karimov has refused all international requests for outside investigation.

On the contrary, he told the US to leave the airbase, and began courting Russia and China.

Will this week’s measures have much effect? No: they are symbolic. The loss of $23 million from the US ‘ fees for the past two years’ use of the base ‘ is not crippling, although it is designed as an insult and will no doubt be taken that way.

‘Paying our bills is important, but more important is America standing up for itself, avoiding the misimpression that we overlook massacres and avoiding cash transfers to the treasury of a dictator just months after he permanently evicts American soldiers from his country’, the Republican senator John McCain said.

On the European side, the one-year sanctions barring arms sales will make little difference, as Uzbekistan has easy access to Russian equipment. The ban on travel of Uzbek officials may sting more.

It is hard to pretend that either the US or European measures will have much practical impact. However, they do send a clear signal, after four years of careful ambiguity.

That is worth doing. As the past few months of hesitation and indecision have shown, it is easily not done.